Race and Distortion:

A Review of James Hirsch’s (2002) Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and its Legacy

            From May 31st  to June 1st of 1921, America saw her worst race riot, a riot so intense and leaving so many dead that many have called it a “race war,” rather than a mere riot. Recently, a flurry of books and attention have been drawn to this unfortunate incidence in the history of Oklahoma, and even claims for “reparations” have been voiced, claims that might have caused an equally powerful flurry of reparations claims for slavery from America’s black community.

            Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the Civil War, was considered a haven for blacks fleeing sharecropping and the legacy of slavery (11-20). It was considered one of the oil capitals of America, and a place where citizens of all races could relocate and begin a new life. The black community was based at the city of Greenwood, a suburb of Tulsa, and was a major center of the southern black renaissance. Whites in Tulsa proper, on the other hand, believed that this town was a hotbed of crime, violence and drugs, and moreover, that whites would often go to Greenwood in order to partake of the degenerate (quite literally, in this case) of the drug culture of the area. But even early on in the work, the author dismisses white claims as “racist” without the slightest proof (or definition, for that matter), it is to be taken on faith (cf 265-66, among other places).

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            In brief, the riot begins this way (52-70): with the white population viewing Greenwood as a hotbed of crime, a white woman accused several black men/boys of attempting to rape her in an elevator. The chief of this youthful group was a boy named Dick Rowland, and his name became the center of the later riot (52). Hirsch holds that the claim was “proven false,” but does not explain why the woman made the story up or what she had to gain. Nevertheless, armed with this “false” news, a group of whites, also recent immigrants to the region, sought to take matters into their own hands. It was not quite a lynch mob, but, after the boy was properly arrested and held for bond, the white gang sought to harm the boy and marched, so to speak, to the prison. At the same time, an equally militant group of blacks (and we have to wait for pages 304-305 to learn that this group was called the “African Blood Brotherhood,” and in essence, a Black Klan) sought to confront the whites at the gates of the prison and protect Mr. Rowland, who the Brotherhood believed was innocent (though the reasons why are unclear, other than he was black). This confrontation, where gunfire was heard and the battle broke out, was the beginning of the violence (77ff). The first dead man was white. It was not long before the city and state declared martial law (142-143), the national guard was called in, and even air power was used to hit Greenwood itself (148-149). When all was done, over 300 were dead, and Greenwood was basically destroyed.

            His description of the riot is highly problematic. On page 102, the author wants to blame the police for starting the fires. He quotes a black man who claimed that the police were not in uniforms, but that they still had on badges. Hence, we are expected to believe that police pinned their badges to their tee shirts. Even when describing acts of mercy of whites who sought to protect blacks that had surrendered to the national guard, he provides us this with ejaculation: “the invasion of Greenwood was not about mass killing ,but about the physical and physical destruction of a community. . . even acts of mercy were acts of hate.” (105). These grandiose explanations are given no evidence, and Hirsch plays the psychologist. If anything, there is the desire to “spiritually destroy” the whites still living in the area. It is these problematic passages that mars this book: it is not a work of history, but a reconstruction of the events of those days solely from the black point of view. Furthermore, his methods are unsound, as most of his abstract and general comments are backed up by isolated incidents narrated by exclusively black witnesses (cf all of ch 6 for example after example of this).

            Nevertheless, what the subsequent adulatory media coverage did not bother to mention was the fact that agitation, of a racial and non-racial sort, was convulsing the city of Tulsa. Bombs were a regular part of life during the early part of the 20th century (61) and labor agitation was rife, for better or worse. It is also mentioned that labor unrest throughout the south was a huge problem, and the lynch mobs were sent to deal with these when the police forces were overwhelmed (64). And Hirsch does a fine job in speaking of the crime wave that hit Tulsa just before World War I, with drugs, murders, prostitution and organized crime at its root (66). In other words the city was on edge. The fact is that the riot did not come from nowhere, and racism was not its root cause. While we in the 21st century are used to crime ridden societies, southerners are the turn of the century were not. Lynch mobs were a form of law enforcement, not a “Klan organization” (63) and they eliminated far more whites than blacks, something the author is forced to admit (54). The author goes a bit overboard with the level of journalistic detail, but when one is roughly halfway through the book, one is convinced that the city was on edge, that this “edge” was bi-racial, and that the “boom” of Tulsa at the turn of the century brought good workers, but also criminal elements that the natives of the area wanted returned to their place of origin. The alleged “rape” on the elevator was just one more event, but it represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.

            Even more, the entire question, dealt with on page 139-140, that white capitalists started the riot in order to buy up burnt out properties is given credence, but never developed. If this is even partially true (and it seems to be given some of his evidence) then the riot was not racial at all, but purely financial and the remainder of the book is of no value. If this thesis is true (and the author quotes several researchers who are convinced that it is) then Tulsan race relations are something manipulated by a handful of banks for financial gain, and hence, the average white or black is innocent. Hence, this thesis is never developed, but tantalizingly dangled in our faces, almost as a joke.

            The problem with the author’s take on the riot is that he takes what he himself eloquently describes as a culture of violence and, without theoretical reason, abstracts “race” from it. This is a clumsy way of taking a complex situation and making it simple (e.g. 163-164). He wants this to be about white guilt, and will even violate his own marshaling of evidence to do it. It almost reads as if Hirsch himself wanted a descriptive history of the culture of violence, and the editors wanted something “edgy” and “controversial.”

            This is a very bad book, but had the potential of being a very good book. The historical description that Hirsch describes (e.g. in chs 2 and 3) does not match his morality soaked conclusion. They are two different things. This historical description is this book’s strength, but it militates against the thesis of the book: bad white man, good black man. The historical description shows an invaded city, organized crime and a government that seemed powerless to do anything. The lynch mobs and the “Klan,” which is actually not used in reference to any “organization,” but to some vague “secret brotherhood” sound more like law enforcement than racial supremacists. This is right in his own description. But when the moral of the book is explained (cf chs 16-20) they are transformed into “white racists.” The complex is reduced to the simple. The groups that sought to destroy lawlessness called themselves the “Knights of Liberty.” The media, at the time, however, referred to them as the “Ku Klux Klan.” Now, as the author admits this sleight of hand (63 et al), he never takes the rational conclusion here. Hence, what begins as an excellent work ends in a saccharine morality play that violates the entire historical premise of the book. It reads as if there are two different authors: one who wrote chapters 1-8, and a second that wrote 9-20.

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